Maxim and Ivy: to Russia with love

MEIR HENOCH WALLACH-FINKELSTEIN (1876-1951) is better known as Maxim Maximovich Litvinov. A Bolshevik revolutionary, he became an important Soviet diplomat. In 1930, Stalin appointed him People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs. Earlier on, shortly after the 1917 Russian Revolution, Maxim was sent to London as the Soviet government’s plenipotentiary representative in Great Britain. While in London, he met and married the writer Ivy (née Low; 1889-1977). I have recently discovered that their lives partially overlapped with mine, not temporally but geographically.

BLOG IVY 5

Ivy was living in London’s Hampstead when she and Maxim were courting. They had met in about 1918 at the home of Dr David Eder (1865-1936), a Zionist socialist and a pioneer of psychoanalysis in Britain. David, whom Ivy regarded as a father figure, and his family lived in Golders Green (actually, in Hampstead Garden Suburb at 103 Hampstead Way, not far from our family home).  According to Ivy’s biographer John Carswell (in his book “The Exile: Ivy Litvinov”):

“Over tea in the Express Dairy in Heath Street where they often met, Ivy helped Maxim to improve his English – throughout her life she adored improving people’s English – and she did more: she guided him in reading English literature.”

Today, the building that used to house the Express Dairy in Heath Street is a branch of the Tesco supermarket empire. However, the building still bears the name ‘Express Dairy’ and the date 1889, the year that Ivy was born.

Ivy’s biographer John Carswell (1918-1997) was the son of one of Ivy’s closest friends, the writer and journalist Catherine Carswell (1879-1946). Ivy met Catherine, a close friend of the writer DH Lawrence who lived in Hampstead, after she had written a favourable review of Ivy’s novel “Growing Pains”, which was published in 1913. Catherine lived in Hampstead at Holly Mount. To be close to her friend, Ivy moved to Hampstead. John, who was born at Hollybush House in Holly Hill, met Ivy several times and has written a good account of her life. It reads well and is extremely informative not only about Ivy but also about her husband.

Ivy and Maxim moved to Russia with their two young children in about 1920 and lived there, with small occasional breaks, until the late 1950s. One of these breaks was when Maxim was appointed Soviet Ambassador to the USA between 1941 and 1943. Her stay in the USSR was also punctuated by short holidays abroad. Living in the USSR, Ivy continued her writing as well as teaching English. Long before he died, Maxim fell out of favour with Stalin and lived in fear of arrest and probable execution. However, he died of natural causes in 1951, just in time to miss Stalin’s last great, but unfulfilled, plan, the anti-Semitic ‘Doctors’ Plot’. On his deathbed, he said to Ivy:

“Englishwoman, go home”.

It was not until 1960 that Ivy did return to England.  But, in 1961, she returned to the USSR, where she remained a pensioned widow until July 1972, when she returned to the UK. She settled in Hove, where she lived the rest of her life. Until her dying day, Ivy wrote, published, and was actively involved with the literary world.

Long before her last visit to England, Ivy had made brief visits. In July 1930, Maxim was appointed People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs. Soon after his promotion Ivy accompanied him to Geneva. That same winter, the Litvinovs paid a visit to London. John Carswell, then twelve years old, recalled:

“She took me to a Christmas show of which even the name now escapes me; but what is still vivid is the tall, dominating, fur-coated figure sweeping me across the wintry promenade outside the Golders Green Hippodrome, to a torrent of commentary.”

Reading about Carswell’s memory of Ivy taking him to a Christmas show at the Hippodrome reminded me of seeing pantomimes at this same theatre when I was about John’s age or maybe a year or two less. until the mid-1960s, the Hippodrome (built as a 3000-seat music hall in 1913) was a very active repertory theatre, where many plays that would eventually end up in the West End were premiered. In addition to plays, operas and Christmas pantomimes were staged there. In the 1960s, it became a BBC television studio, and lately it has become a venue for Islamic meetings. Like Carswell, I cannot remember what shows I saw there as a child, but I do remember being impressed by the size and fittings (seats arranged in galleries, boxes, and the vast stage) of the Hippodrome. It was as least as impressive as the grandest of West End theatres.

I enjoyed reading Carswell’s biography not only because it provided some insight into what life was like in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s rule but also because it introduced me to the life of an intriguing woman writer whose love for Maxim led her to spend a large part of her life in the USSR. Another thing that appealed to me is that Carswell provided me with new aspects of the history of Hampstead, a part of London which I know well and where I grew up. It is with some reluctance that I will return this enjoyable biography to our local public library.

 

 

 

 

It was not all bad in East Germany

 

For those of you who are too young to remember, Germany was divided into two separate countries, West Germany and East Germany (‘DDR’), between the end of World War 2 (‘WW2’) and 1990 (when the two countries were united into one). The DDR was a socialist republic overshadowed by the USSR.

Many years after the re-unification of Germany, our German-built Bosch dish-washing machine broke down. The engineer who came to mend it, fixed it in a couple of minutes, but remained talking to us for half an hour. He had been brought up in the DDR. He wanted to explain to us that contrary to all that we might have heard about the evils of the DDR and the difficulties its citizens faced, it was not all bad. He told us that, for example, education was good, there was little or no unemployment, and there had been a great sense of camaraderie. It was very important for our engineer that we should not think ill of the former DDR.

Recently, I finished reading an excellent book about the DDR, Red Love written by Maxim Leo and published in English in 2013. Leo was born in 1970, and like our Bosch engineer, does not damn the DDR, but takes care to point out that living in that former country was not at all easy or straightforward. For anyone curious about life in the DDR, this book is very illuminating. However, there is much more to this short book than describing the DDR.

What is most fascinating in Leo’s book is his stories about his two grandfathers, both of whom lived in the DDR. One of them remembered life being reasonable during the Nazi regime. Despite his grandson’s questioning, it is not clear what he did during those terrible times. The other grandfather led an exciting and dangerous life as a member of the French resistance during WW2. His story is gripping. 

Leo’s parents are also interestingly described. They were both in favour of, or atleast not completely against, the regime in the DDR. Each of them expressed their didfferent critical views of the political system, but neither of them did so strongly that they fell out of favour with it.

The book is a very readable translation of the original German translation. It provides a fascinating insight into life in the DDR and the period that preceded it. It was a book that I found difficult to put down, a real ‘page-turner’. Some of what I read in it chimes well with what our dish washing machine engineer told us.

The Wall

DDR

 

The Berlin Wall ceased to be a barrier between capitalist West Germany and socialist East Germany in late 1989. It marked the ending of the ‘Cold War’ and the recent collapse of the former USSR. 

At that time, my father made an interesting observation, which I want to sahre with you. He is a retired academic at the world famous London School of Economics (‘LSE’). The LSE had a large number of academics with an expert interest in politics. He told me that the end of the Cold War had come as a complete surprise to his colleagues, who professed to be experts on the subject. Not one of them had predicted either the downfall of the USSR or the ending of the Cold War. I was staggered by this information, and my faith in ‘experts’ reduced a bit.

So, now when I listen to ‘expert’ after ‘expert’ giving opinions on the outcome of ‘Brexit’ and the future of politics in the UK (or elsewhere), I take what they say with the proverbial ‘pinch of salt’.

 

Picture: The emblem of the DDR, sourced from Wikipedia